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Golden: Smart must prevent Texas' locker room from becoming a minefield

Senior Royce Hamm tweeted dissatisfaction after Kansas State game

Texas basketball players, from left to right, Royce Hamm Jr., Courtney Ramey, Donovan Williams and Andrew Jones stand together after a 2020 home loss to Texas Tech.
  • Texas beat Kansas State but Shaka Smart had to address a question regarding the unhappiness of senior Royce Hamm who didn't play.
  • The Horns are 12-5 overall and 6-4 in Big 12 play.
  • Texas returns to action Saturday against TCU

The tweet came out of nowhere.

It was sort of like Royce Hamm flying to the rescue for a blocked shot at the rim after a teammate got beat on defense.

Hamm is at best the eighth player in Texas’ rotation, but the senior forward wasn’t part of the mix in Tuesday’s 80-77 road win over a bad Kansas State team.

The 13th-ranked Longhorns avoided the upset and got things back on track for the time being with a much-needed win, but Hamm, known for bringing energy off the bench, received the dreaded DNP-CD designation.

Did Not Play. Coach’s Decision.

Then, Twitter happened.

“Loyalty means nothing nowadays!” Hamm tweeted after the game.

Hamm is averaging more than 10.6 minutes per game, but being a member of perhaps the deepest ball club in the country came with the understanding that heavy minutes weren’t going to come in 2021.

He has played hard when called upon, having appeared in 14 of 17 games, including a start against Oklahoma when he scored a season-high seven points. Still, it wasn’t the best move to bemoan not playing after your team just avoided its fifth loss in six games.

Texas forward Royce Hamm Jr., guarding Oklahoma State forward Kalib Boone in last Saturday's double-overtime loss in Stillwater, tweeted his displeasure at not playing in Tuesday's 80-77 win at Kansas State. Texas faces TCU Saturday.

As if there weren’t enough challenges in this unique season, coach Shaka Smart must now address an unhappy reserve. We aren’t in that locker room with Smart, Matt Coleman, Courtney Ramey and the other leaders, but anyone who has been part of a team knows that its ultimate success can only come if the group as a whole has great buy-in, from the leading scorer to the walk-on who may play in five games all season.

To that end, I asked Smart to describe where his locker room sits in the area of chemistry past the midway point of the season.

Shaka said he would be 100% honest with his answer.

More:Texas’ Shaka Smart battled ‘significant’ COVID-19 symptoms, now ready for No. 2 Baylor

“We really are figuring that out,” Smart said. “I think our guys have been really good in that regard all season, all things considered. But I think the time where we were disjointed for a while ... guys being away, me being away. I think we're still we're still coming back from that, chemistry-wise, as much as anything else.”

Translation: It’s an every-day battle to keep everyone on the same page. Managing egos is never easy, but a coach willing to make tough decisions for the greater good can ultimately be a winning coach. Above all else, he can't fall into the trap of trying to make everyone happy. It's impossible. A locker room is like a minefield. Tread carefully and guard against everything blowing up internally.

Texas head coach Shaka Smart led his team to an 80-77 win over Kansas State on Tuesday but was hit with the news that senior forward Royce Hamm had tweeted his displeasure with not having played in the game.

Smart sat Hamm because he wanted to get Jase Febres — back from offseason microfracture knee surgery — more looks in an offense that still struggles to make 3-pointers consistently.

Smart sat Hamm because swingman Brock Cunningham has been one of his best on-ball defenders on one end while coming down with timely offensive rebounds on the other.

Smart sat Hamm because he wanted to get wing Kamaka Hepa some time. Hepa, who hit a 3-pointer while being fouled seconds after being inserted, is a much better offensive player than Hamm.

Smart is searching for the right rotation that can get the Horns back rolling like they were earlier in the season, and if that means fewer minutes for Hamm, then so be it.

More:No. 13 Texas 80, Kansas State 77: Seesaw Horns get the offense rolling, but defense slips

The basketball season is a long one and 2021 has brought with it a set of challenges unlike any in the history of American sports. Entering Saturday’s home matinee against TCU, the Horns sit in fourth place in the Big 12 at 6-4 — they’re 12-5 overall — and can get their mojo back after being hit by COVID-19 issues three weeks ago.

Smart spoke of resiliency and poise under pressure from Manhattan and lauded Coleman, his senior point guard who made five of six free throws down the stretch after foolishly going for a dunk — he missed it — with the game on the line when a layup would have put the Horns up by six points late.

Thankfully for Smart, they held on to halt their recent slide. With much better teams than the Wildcats coming on the schedule, the Horns will have to lean on one another to regain the momentum that seemed to be in endless supply earlier in the season.

As for Hamm, only he, Smart and the team know the full story on why he didn’t get in to the game, but there will be ample practice to prove to his coach that he deserves more time. In most cases, sports is a meritocracy and Smart is definitely one of those coaches who keeps score, in practices, in games, on the team bus, etc.

Texas junior  guard Andrew Jones went to coach Shaka Smart before Tuesday's game at Kansas State and said he would defer offensively to get his other teammates going first. The Longhorns won 80-77.

Want an example of the type of selflessness he’s hoping spreads from breast to breast in that locker room? Junior guard Andrew Jones, who has been Texas’ most explosive scorer this season, actually went to his coach before Tuesday’s game and said he was gong to take a backseat offensively early in an attempt to get his teammates going. Jones deferred on offense and freshman Greg Brown took full advantage with 14 first-half points.

“I've been performing well offensively as far as scoring, but it hasn't resulted in any major wins,” said Jones, who scored 24 points. “Getting (teammates) involved is ultimately more important than individual statistics to me.”

Jones has bought in to the team concept, as have many of the others. Up until Tuesday night, Hamm had not acted out publicly and while Smart says he stays away from Twitter, he knows that a house divided can fall in tragic fashion if things go unchecked.

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Smart has asked his players if they are willing to lose themselves in this team in the unified goal of being bigger than the sum of its parts.

“That's a daily decision,” he said. “It’s not one you take for granted. Obviously it's an easy decision when you're a coach, but when you're a young kid, it's something you gotta think through and figure out. But that's absolutely going to determine the outcome of our season.”

It can be a special season, but buy-in is key. Hamm is a pleasant young man who was merely acting out in a moment of frustration, but sometimes it’s better to swallow your pride, get back in the gym and kick some butt.

The Horns beat Kansas State. How they got there should not matter.